The first person Pope Francis approached on his way from the Apostolic Nunciature to his Congress-bound motorcade Sept. 24 was a fourth grader from Brookewood School, an all-girl school in Kensington.
Before the pope appeared, Annie Bist, fourth grade teacher at Brookewood, told Shannan Croarkin, the youngest Brookewood girl there, to squeeze between people in front of her toward a Brookewood senior who was closer to the fence that would separate the crowd from the pope. The red-haired fourth grader ended up next to fence that was closest to the Nunciature door, Bist said.
When the Holy See exited the Apostolic Nunciature, the children “went wild,” Richard McPherson, president of Avalon and Brookewood said. Some children were screaming with excitement to be close to the pope. In contrast, Pope Francis remained calm.
“He had a pleasant smile,” McPherson said.
Pope Francis walked down the steps straight to Croarkin, gave her a hug and kissed her miraculous medal, Bist explained.
“(The interaction) was really, really special. A beautiful thing to happen,” Bist remarked.
The Holy See slowly made his way down the driveway looking at almost every person there, Brookewood senior Sarah Rivas said.
Every Brookewood student touched the pope, said Bist.
McPherson said when the Holy Father reached the place where he was standing, McPherson thanked Pope Francis for starting the “Year of Mercy” this year, and the Pontiff gave him a “thumbs-up.”
The Avalon and Brookewood president, Bist and 11 students from each school were among more than 100 people who greeted the pope.
Avalon junior Michael McPherson, the president’s son, shook the pope’s hand. Michael McPherson said he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the Apostolic Nunciature where Pope Francis was staying at 5:55 a.m.
Though the group had to wait more than three hours, Avalon senior Brendan Sloan, 17, said the encounter was worth the wait. Sloan said once he became aware the pope was about to emerge from the Apostolic Nunciature, he was awake and felt himself smiling.
“I was like half-asleep, and then all of a sudden when I heard he was about to come out and like you know, everyone was just ready. I mean my face just lit up and everyone was just so excited,” Sloan said.
Bist encouraged Brookewood girls to stand in front of her so that they could the Holy Father when he walked past them.
“I was just so glad that all our students were able to really see him and to touch him,” she said. “It was really special.”
Brookewood and Avalon selected students to attend the events by way of a lottery after the number of students who demonstrated interest exceeded the number of tickets. Bist’s name was selected from the teacher lottery. At Apostle Anunciature, Bist was toward the back of the crowd but was still close to Pope Francis, Bist said.
“So few people there because of the amount of tickets that even though I was at the back, I could still see him, I could still reach out and touch him,” Bist said.
After the pope departed in his Fiat along with the motorcade, students either returned to school or went home. Most Avalon students went home, Richard McPherson said.
Bist said she and the Brookewood students did not realize how tired they were until they headed homeward.
“As soon as we got into the van to drive home, we all crashed,” Bist said.
Avalon Headmaster Kevin Davern took seven students to see the pope on Sept. 23 during the arrival ceremony at the White House. 15,000 people attended, Davern and the students were farther away. He said he attended the event to show support for the pope’s values.
“we believe that the pope is Christ’s vicar on earth so the chance to see him in person is a great thing,” Davern said.
Avalon senior Kevin Stoll, 17, joined Davern to the White House and also attended the pope’s address to Congress. Stoll admires the pope for his humility, he said.
“It’s unexplainable how humble he is. I don’t think the world has seen someone like that before except for maybe Mother Theresa, to me.”
Pope Francis has not been sharing completely new messages from the church, Davern said. However, Pope Francis might deliver the messages in such a way that people are more likely to listen, he said.
“The good part about this enthusiasm that Pope Francis has is that I think some people might actually listen to the message for the first time and they weren’t listening so much before he was pope even though he might be saying the same things, in a different way perhaps,” Davern said. “And so some people are open. Perhaps, you know, there’s a window to being open and a truth can get through.”